MLB second half preview: Contenders and pretenders

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The All-Star break officially ends at 7:05PM Eastern this evening when the Cubs take on the Orioles and the Pirates take on the Cardinals. Five minutes later five more games will get underway and by the time we go to bed tonight all 30 teams will either have played or will be in action and the season’s second half will have commenced.

Let’s take a look at some of the burning questions for that second half:

Q: Who are the real contenders and who are the mere pretenders? 

The division races are pretty bad this year, my friends. The closest division is the AL Central, with the Indians holding a 2.5 game lead over the Twins and three games over the Royals. Next is the AL East, with the Red Sox holding a 3.5 game lead over the Yankees and Rays. Three divisions feature utter blowouts, with the Astros leading the AL West by 16.5 games, the Nationals leading the NL East by 9.5 games and the Dodgers leading the NL West by 7.5 games. The Brewers hold a 5.5 game lead over the Cubs and Cardinals.

Of the closer races, Boston’s lead seems safe for now, but the AL East has defied predictions in recent seasons. The Indians struggled early but I suspect they’ll hit a higher gear in the second half and pull away. If anything, I suspect the Royals to give them a tougher race than the Twins. I have not counted out the Cubs, especially given their pickup of Jose Quintana yesterday, but the Brewers have been surprisingly resilient so far. The Cardinals don’t scare me nearly as much as the Cubs do, but we could have a really interesting race in the NL Central.

As for the Wild Card: in the American League It’s probably easier to say who isn’t a contender there than who is. If I’m drawing the line I say you can realistically draw it where the Rangers sit, three games out, with the Orioles, Mariners and Blue Jays as marginal and the Tigers, A’s and White Sox out of it. In the NL it’s a bit easier: the Diamondbacks, Rockies and whoever doesn’t win the NL Central are the only realistic contenders.

All of that aside, we have two classes of teams this year: the class containing the Astros, Nationals and Dodgers on the one hand and everyone else on the other. It’ll be up to the GMs of the mass of teams huddling within 3-5 games of the Wild Card in the American League and the couple of teams on the margins in the National League to make deals to distinguish themselves.

Q: Whose schedule presents the easiest path forward? Whose is the toughest?

Let’s keep in mind that baseball is not college football, so strength of schedule is not exactly the be-all, end-all. Anyone can beat anyone at any time and there is enough parity in this game to where the differences between a tough schedule and an easy one are pretty small.

That said, FanGraphs rates such things and, according to them, the Indians, Astros, Royals, Rangers, Tigers and Twins have the easiest second half schedules in the AL with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox and Rays having the toughest go. That’s suggests the schedules largely cancelling each other out given who has to beat who going forward.

In the National League the Dodgers have the easiest schedule in the second half and the Diamondbacks have the absolute toughest which may put the NL West “race” into perspective. The Cubs have the third easiest schedule, the Cardinals the fifth and the Brewers have the sixth hardest, which should make the Central race interesting.

Q: Who are the buyers at the trade deadline and what are they buying?

Just about every contender has some need. Even the Astros and Dodgers. As usual, it’s mostly pitching. People always need pitching. That being said, here’s what I see as each contender — or marginal contender’s — biggest need.

  • Nationals: A closer. This is the most glaring need among any contender. They cannot enter the playoffs with their bullpen as currently constructed.
  • Brewers: Bullpen help
  • Cubs: They filled their biggest need yesterday with the Jose Quintana acquisition. They could use a backup catcher. They could also use their existing bats to heat up.
  • Cardinals: A bat, bullpen help
  • Dodgers: They could use back-end rotation help. There’s a rumor that they could target Zach Britton or some other back-end bullpen help to give them a devastating 1-2 punch with Kenley Jansen. If you shorten the game you can make up for some weakness at the back end of the rotation.
  • Diamondbacks: Bullpen help. An infielder.
  • Rockies: Bullpen help
  • Red Sox: A third baseman now, as always. Bullpen help.
  • Yankees: They acquired a first baseman by trading for Brewers minor leaguer Garrett Cooper yesterday, but it remains to be seen if that hole is truly filled. They need a reliever not named Tyler Cippard. They need existing players like Matt Holliday and Aaron Hicks to come back (UPDATE: Holliday is coming back tonight). They need Dellin Betances to find the strike zone.
  • Rays: Middle relief, but I doubt they make any big moves. They may be more likely to sell than to buy.
  • Orioles: Starting pitching but, really, true contention seems like a pipe dream
  • Indians: Starting pitching. Or 2-3 of their existing starters to get healthy and/or stop sucking.
  • Twins: Rotation help (Bartolo Colon is not, contrary to popular belief, anyone’s savior), bullpen help. Don’t expect major moves, though.
  • Royals: Starting pitching
  • AstrosDallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers to be healthy. If that can’t be guaranteed — and it never can be — another starting pitcher would be nice.
  • Rangers: Bullpen help
  • Mariners: Pitching, pitching, pitching.
  • Angels: Starting pitching, though they could get several arms back from injury. Still, it’s unlikely that they’ll do much. They are marginal contenders at best and don’t have any prospects to deal. They do get a fella named Mike Trout back tonight. He could possibly help out. Hard to say.

Q: What players are available?

Theoretically: anyone. As far as the guys people are talking about, it breaks down thusly, in no particular order of ranking. Obviously these names can change as teams fall in and out of contention or decide to be buyers or sellers.

So that’s where we stand on July 14th as the regular season, thankfully, resumes.

Video: Jaime Garcia hits a 399-foot grand slam

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Jaime Garcia has been at the center of trade talks for several days now, but on Friday night, he commanded center stage for an entirely different reason. The Braves’ southpaw went head-to-head with Dodgers’ lefty Alex Wood and mashed his first career grand slam: a two-out, 399-foot blast that cleared the wall in right field and put the Braves up 9-0 in the fifth inning.

The bases-loaded knock was the third career home run for Garcia, whose contributions at the plate have been few and far between over his nine-year track in the major leagues. Not only did the homer mark an impressive career first for the 30-year-old, but it was just the second pitcher grand slam in Braves’ history and the first since 1966.

Garcia looked almost as impressive on the mound during Friday’s series opener, issuing one run, four hits and three strikeouts through his first six innings. The Braves currently lead the Dodgers 12-1 in the top of the seventh inning.

As for whether the slam will affect negotiations between the Braves and Twins? MLB.com’s Mike Petriello put it best:

Ryon Healy exits game after taking a ground ball to the face

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Athletics’ first baseman Ryon Healy had a scary moment during Friday’s loss to the Mets. Lucas Duda smacked a single to the first base side, where the ball took a high hop and caught Healy in the left temple. He crumpled to the ground after getting struck by the one-hopper, but was eventually able to stand and walk off the field with assistance from a trainer.

Prior to the injury, Healy went 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI single in the first inning. He was replaced by Yonder Alonso, who finished off the rest of the night’s 7-5 loss with a walk in two plate appearances.

Following the game, manager Bob Melvin told reporters that Healy did not appear to have sustained a concussion as a result of the hit. Healy said he thinks he’ll be good to go for Saturday’s game, though a final decision likely won’t be made until tomorrow.